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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Time

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Religious systems are embedded in cultural notions of the sacred and how those concepts affect both the identity of individuals and the functioning of communities. Sunni Islam likewise manifests concepts of sacred time that correspond to both individual practice and community life.

On an individual level, Muslims are obligated to perform five prayers (salat) daily, and these are distributed throughout the day. Islamic prayer times were traditionally timed according to the changes in the movement of the sun, therefore their appointed times vary from day to day and from location to location. They occur before dawn (fajr), in the mid-afternoon (dhuhr), late afternoon (asr), sunset (maghrib), and evening (ishaa). The sun has nothing to do with the prayers aside from the issue of timing: this way, the five prayers are distributed throughout the day and night.

Muslim at prayer inside a mosque: photo courtesy of dperstin via C.C. License at FlickrIndividual prayers can be performed anywhere, including in a public place or a person's home. What makes the time of a prayer sacred is not where it is performed, but the fact that it corresponds to one of the appointed five times. Performing prayers at a prescribed time has the additional dimension of stepping away from one's mundane activities into a ritual performance, into a "time out of time" that is only valid for that prescribed prayer. One could not, for example, perform the mid-afternoon prayer at dawn.Nor is it advisable for a person to pray all the five prayers at once (though in case of long-distance travel, it is permitted according to the Sunni schools to combine some of the prayers for expedience and ease). Timing is therefore an essential element of these five prayers. Other free-form prayers or supplications, called duaa, are considered less formal since they are not required, though they are still sacred.

There are several accompanying factors that contribute to the sacredness of prayer time, namely ablution, behavior during prayer, and dress. To enter into ritual prayer, a Muslim first performs ablution, or a ritual washing.Ritual washing before entering the mosque: photo courtesy of qilin via C.C. License at Flickr The Sunni schools of law have differing views on the details of ablution based on their view of what the proper custom (sunna) of Muhammad was. In general, all agree that pray-ers must wash their faces, hands, and lower arms, and wipe their feet. Among certain Sunni schools there is also a rinsing of the mouth and a wiping of the upper forehead and hairline. All agree that this ablution is required, and must be redone if the state of ritual purity is broken, which is usually effected by bodily functions. As such, five daily prayers likewise mean repeated ablutions. Washing station on the Jerusalem temple mount: photo courtesy of chadica via C.C. License at FlickrThis is why most mosques include fountains or special washrooms specifically for ritual ablution before congregational prayers.

 

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